This past year, Brite Winter once again assumed its mantle as the premier showcase for local artists. Bands and musicians from all over Cleveland congregated for a day of dynamic concerts and mingling with fans. These are active and involved local acts, the sort that keep throwing down live shows and studio cuts that thrill the Northeast Ohio audience time and time again. Among them: Seafair, a cross-section of various rock 'n' roll traditions and a band worth a closer look as they prepare their next album.
The band first formed in 2012 as a quartet, which soon grew to its current six-piece incarnation, rounded out in entirety by drummer Ryan Kelly, guitarist Michael Flaherty, bassist Joshua Riehl, cellist Tara Hanish, violinist Andrea Belding and singer and frontwoman Chayla Hope. ("Everybody is very different, but it's almost to our benefit because it's a family type atmosphere," Kelly told Scene last year. "Everything flows so smoothly. There's squabbling and stuff like that, but it's smooth for the most part. If something happens to one of the six of us, we'll never have that same magic.")
Seafair combines the tried-and-true elements of rock 'n' roll: drums, bass, guitar, keys and impassioned vocals. Blended into that spectrum are Hanish and Belding's cello and violin, which set Seafair apart from most bands in Cleveland and elsewhere.
In 2014, with a few EPs paving their way to local acclaim, the band traveled to Colorado to record their first full-length, The Querencia. The album was released in the late spring of 2015, and by early 2016 it had been some time since the band had been in the studio setting.
This current undertaking is a bit different than the typical process of churning out 12 cuts and releasing a physical album; rather, the band is taking a step back to look at how the market is working, both here and nationally.
"We started off doing two EPs, our first steps into the recording realm as a band," Flaherty tells Scene. "With the way the recording industry in general seems to be — and the trends, as far as album sales, streaming, attention spans — artists have the ability to create, produce, release. On top of that, we were just excited to get going and be creative."
To wit, the band is cutting two songs at a time, releasing them almost as singles. To begin the journey, Seafair selected "Parachute" and "Jukebox Soul," two songs that were written mostly last year.
And so, armed with the first entry into their newest project, the band discussed their recording options. They went local this time.
Jim Stewart's studio is on the top floor of an old brick building on Superior Avenue. It's a big, open space, and its treasure trove of sound equipment and musical instruments isn't what one might expect to find hidden among the near-eastside's cache of former warehouses. There's an air of creativity around every corner. Stewart moved his studio into this joint around six months ago.
Stewart began working in the recording biz around 10 years ago. He began with the 2006 High School Rock-off. Over the past five years, he's been working on his own.
"The past couple years, for me personally and for other people who do this in the area, it's been good," Stewart says. "There's a real growth. A lot more people, especially in this area, they want to do things a little bit more organically."
That's certainly the case with Seafair's work thus far. And Stewart's relationship with the band seems to really bolster that goal. To provide a bit of backstory: Hope and Hanish wrote a song for Belding's wedding a few years back. One year later, the band recorded that song for Belding and her husband. Stewart helped them with the process, and thus began his working relationship with Seafair. "They're an interesting band," Stewart says. "There's a lot going on."
Just a few weeks ago, the band began working with Stewart on these new tunes.
"We knew that we wanted the sound for these two songs — they're both more pop, melodic," Flaherty says. "Especially with Jim and the way he engineers things and his sound, we knew we definitely wanted to roll with him."
For the recording process, the band is coming by for these two-song hits. It's sort of a struggle to get everyone in the same room at the same time, so the track recordings are done whenever there's an opportunity. (Hanish lives in New York City.)
In the two days leading up to Brite Winter, the band clocked time with Stewart. The day prior to the show, they were looking at a 17-hour marathon, from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. "People were kind of showing up and leaving throughout the day," Stewart says. "We finally got done with the strings around 3 a.m." Some bands' sessions take place across one long day; others might take two years. Musicians often have day jobs, after all.
The process here involved acquiring five takes or so for each instrument and layering them into a final take, at which point band members would then provide their input for Stewart's mixing work. ("Mixing," incidentally, refers to adjusting and fine-tuning the levels and equalization of the already-recorded tracks, and adding various effects.) From project to project, the process varies.
"You have to follow how the band or person wants to do it," Stewart says. (Ray Flanagan and the Authorities, another band that works with Stewart, cut their last album live.) Here, Stewart would home in on an individual track — the drums, say — and then add in layers. "We did five takes, and then put together a master take or a master performance," he says.
He sends mixes to the band members, who chime in via email and in person. It's a matter of "finding that middle ground and comparing notes and trying to put that into action," Flaherty says.
"I try to build stuff in as I go," Stewart continues. "Ninety percent of the time, I'm mixing the stuff I'm recording. I'm trying to figure out what it is from the beginning. So I try to make the guitars sound the way they're going to sound, so when we mix it, it doesn't take as long. Six to eight hours for a song is not uncommon when mixing."
Often Stewart sends out the final mix to someone else for mastering. "They kind of polish the overall record," Stewart says. "The difference is that I have control over the individual elements of everything; I can turn up the vocals or the kick-drum. But they consolidate it all into a record."
Looking ahead, Seafair will be dropping these new songs shortly and pairing "Jukebox Soul," the single, with a video release. This is all building up to a fall 2016 EP release.
For Stewart, there's a reverence to adding to Cleveland's ever-evolving music scene. He recalls working with Ohio Sky on their album, Curses, as a bit of a turning point. "That was one of the the things that, for me, turned me from a staff engineer at a place — like I would be assigned to a band — to bands coming to me," Stewart says. "That was another thing where they literally went into a room, all standing there together, and just played the record."
He also cites Welshly Arms' debut as a high-water mark. "They had such a vision of where they wanted to be that they made me better," Stewart recalls.
And he's got plenty more on his plate in the days and weeks to come. New Cleveland music is hitting the streets and the Internet all the time; and even now, somewhere in town, someone is putting pen to paper and sketching out the initial ideas that will lead to another chapter in the history of our scene.